Some Post-Election Thoughts

A half-hearted nation will want to hold fast to its grievances, and in that sense Scotland has done well. The nation’s brickwork is cemented with resentments, from ruined monastery to erupting towerblock: blame, fear, bigotry and delusion, their fragments powder the common air – and always the fault is seen to lie elsewhere, with other nations, other lives. Scotland is a place where cultural artefacts and past battles – the Stone of Destiny, Robert Burns, Braveheart, Bannockburn – have more impact on people’s sense of moral action than politics does. The people have no real commitment to the public sphere, and are not helped towards any such commitment by the dead rhetoric of the young Parliament. Yet the problem is not the Parliament, it’s the people, and the people’s drowsy addiction to imagined injury – their belief in a paralysing historical distress – which makes the country assert itself not as a modern nation open to progress on all fronts, but as a delinquent, spoiled, bawling child, tight in its tartan babygro, addled with punitive needs and false memory syndrome.

I have quoted this piece before and return to it often. Although written in 2002, I find it astonishingly prescient with regards to Scottish politics over a decade later. Yesterday’s Holyrood election underlines that ‘nationalist’ vs ‘unionist’, or competing versions of nationalism if you like, has become the dominant division in Scottish politics. It gives me no pleasure to be proved right in my assertions that this is a disastrous state of affairs for the left. Let’s be clear here: the Scottish electorate has elected two parties who advocate low tax and spending cuts as their government and its opposition. It has done this due to at best misguided, at worst deeply stupid battle over rearranging the chairs of government; many of those who voted SNP have supported conservatism in the belief that an imagined future radicalism is worth inaction now. The myths of Scottish exceptionalism, particularly that it is more left-wing than rUK, have never looked so facile. With a turnout of 55% we can also lay to rest the notion that Scotland is in the midst of some ‘carnival of democracy’. It’s deeply ironic that many loud voices have spent the past few years demanding more powers for Holyrood and pointing the finger at Westminster, yet when it comes to it the just-over-half of the electorate who bother to vote go for parties who don’t actually want to do much with the new powers (it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge the SNP’s proposed Air Passenger Duty cut, which I’m sure will usher in a golden age).

I’ve seen some people wondering how on earth Scottish Labour could move clearly to the left of the SNP and still come third. As I’ve been arguing for some time, much of the hatred for Labour in Scotland has become pathological and owes little to policy or even its record. It’s for this reason that Labour achievements in office are ignored, distorted or claimed for the SNP. This goes hand in hand with nationalists wanting the Tories to do better than Labour and celebrating this as a ‘good result for Yes’:

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The Tories pose no existential threat to Scottish nationalism. Indeed, the existence of the Tories as a party of government, to the right of the SNP, is absolutely essential to feeding the myths of Scottish exceptionalism, enabling nationalists to argue that fault lies elsewhere and portraying independence as the only way to achieve ‘progressive values’. A left-wing Labour party, led by an unabashed socialist in the UK and advocating old-fashioned tax and spend policies in Scotland, does pose an existential threat to nationalism. We caught a glimpse of this when Owen Jones asked Mhairi Black if she would rather have a UK governed by a socialist government or an independent Scotland. She of course chose the latter and the reality behind her assertion that ‘Labour left me’ (which already made no sense given she was 3 when Blair came to power) was laid bare. Whether it be Black, RISE or even to a large extent the Green Party, the ‘it’s not nationalism, it’s socialism’ advocates tend to favour and/or provide cover for the former when push comes to shove. The opposition to the SNP provided by the latter two parties has been woeful (the Greens voting against a tax rise to offset cuts, in the hope of some vague future radicalism, was a particular low point) and it has been clear that they hoped to ride the SNP’s coattails into power on second preferences. RISE in particular has unthinkingly bought into nationalism while insisting it’s actually socialist:

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You would think that ‘socialists’ would be willing to work with other socialists whatever their view of the constitution, rather than dismissing them as ‘unionist’. This dreck was never going to fly and it’s why RISE polled a woeful 0.5% in the election.

Now, it’s interesting that the SNP have fallen just short of an overall majority as this poses a challenge for the party. If it replicates its strategy of the 2007 strategy and does deals with the Tories, much of its rhetoric of grievance will fall apart. Yet if it relies on the Greens (or even Lib Dems) you would (hopefully) expect that the latter parties would push for the kind of tax rises, extensive land reform and radicalism elsewhere which the SNP has avoided in its clear desire not to scare the horses. It could be argued that if this second route is taken the SNP’s constant fixation on what it can’t do would be greatly undermined; on the other hand, with the constitutional question looking set to remain the defining issue for the foreseeable future, you could also argue that conservative Yes voters don’t really have anywhere else to go.

One thing which is clear is that Scottish Labour’s manifesto has exposed the lie of SNP ‘progressiveness’ and Scottish exceptionalism. ‘Red Tory’ has never sounded so hollow. This is why it was an important strategic move in an election Labour were never going to win (if Thomas Docherty‘s view that a more right-wing manifesto would have helped matters is remotely typical of opinion in the party then I despair – it would instead only have provided fuel to the ‘Red Tory’ fire). I see some Scottish Labour figures are already arguing that Full Fiscal Autonomy is the only way to save the party. Perhaps this is true but, if so, it’s an acknowledgement that left-wing values cannot defeat popular nationalism (though there are thoughtful left-wing voices who are discussing how to ensure a federal UK can be progressive).

We also see that it’s in Scotland where the Tory vote has surged most in the UK – an over 10% increase on 2011 in the list vote – whereas Labour in England seems to have avoided the catastrophe expected under its beleaguered socialist leader, has done surprisingly well in the south of England and is almost certain to win back London City Hall. In Wales, meanwhile, Labour will remain the largest party but UKIP have surged by 12% in the constituency vote, an interesting if bleak indicator of the kind of nationalism which is dominating there. Myths have been shattered, certainties have crumbled and the politics of the UK has rarely looked more regional and dominated by competing nationalisms. If, as expected, Sadiq Khan becomes London Mayor later today I will celebrate. I will celebrate because being a socialist who loathes nationalism offers few moments of satisfaction and the future doesn’t exactly inspire.

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Election Day: Rejecting the Tories and the SNP

Sadiq Khan romped to victory in Labour’s mayoral selection contest due, in large part, to the same wave of restless dissatisfaction which saw Corbyn elected Labour leader. Khan positioned himself as the left-wing candidate most likely to defeat Tessa Jowell, the Blairite candidate clearly favoured by the Labour machine, and reaped the benefit. One of his aides was quoted as saying:

Almost all Jeremy Corbyn voters are voting for Sadiq Khan. There is a 90 per cent crossover. Most of these new people joined for a reason, and that was to vote for Corbyn.

It was disappointing, then, when Khan immediately veered right and began feeding tabloid attacks on Corbyn. Since then he has run a deeply conservative and uninspiring campaign strongly resembling Labour’s ‘35% strategy’, which Khan allegedly masterminded for the 2015 General Election. The focus has been on laying low, not rocking the boat and assuring everyone that Khan would be a safe and steady hand rather than a radical, transformative Mayor.

Speaking now, I would argue, it’s difficult for any but the most dogmatic of observers not to see that this strategy might have had more to it than conservativism or a lack of boldness. Zac Goldsmith and the Tories have ran one of the most shameful and nakedly racist campaigns in modern political memory. The increasingly hysterical attempts to link Khan with ‘extremism’ and ‘radicalism’, either directly or via Jeremy Corbyn, culminated in the disagrace of yesterday’s PMQs where David Cameron ignored questions on his government’s policy to instead opportunistically raise remarks Corbyn had made about Hamas and Hezbollah. Whatever you think of Corbyn’s remarks, let’s recall that only a few months ago Cameron was rejecting his criticisms of the UK government’s support of the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia and trying to evade the matter of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr’s proposed execution. Let’s also recall that Cameron and the UK government have gone well beyond calling violent extremists ‘friends’ and have actively enabled them:

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If the cynical opportunism should be clear, Goldsmith and Cameron’s deliberate attempt to exploit racial tensions, perceived or otherwise, was an attempt to weaponise Khan’s status as a Muslim and a British Pakistani. This is inexcusable and unforgiveable in any context but in the race to lead one of the most diverse cities in the world, it is also extraordinarily stupid.

Khan’s rather insipid campaign, then, can be said to have served some purpose in neutralising much of these attacks. While his programme doesn’t get the blood racing, the Tories deserve to be smashed for their campaign alone. If, as expected, Khan is victorious, the left-wing Labour members who elected him must work to hold him to account and push for the radical policies which most people in London need.

The ‘divide and rule’ strategy pursued by the Tories has been typical of their period in government. Whether it be painting the poor as people “sleeping off a life on benefits”, continually othering Muslims and linking them to ‘extremism’ or blaming immigration for people’s economic woes, the Tory government appeals to the basest and most uninformed prejudices in people. The assertion of the Scottish Conservatives, that they would offer the ‘best opposition’ to the SNP, is laughable when it is the Tories’ calculated inflaming of English nationalism that has so fed the dramatic rise of its Scottish counterpart.

Such tactics are necessary when you are unable to defend your record in government. Tory policy on housing, schools, universities, the justice system, the economy, immigration, poverty and, of course, health are all disingenuous and disastrous, driven by an extreme right-wing ideology. To support the Conservative Party is to support unabashed racism, misogyny and a concerted attack on the most vulnerable people in our society (of which the tax credit and personal independence payments debacles were but small glimpses).

You cannot support the Conservatives and say ‘but I don’t like the bad things they do’. You either actively opposite or you are complicit. The party deserves to lose.

There is, of course, another party of government which has been using divide and rule nationalism to distract from the paucity of its record: the SNP. No-one who reads my blogs or Twitter could fail to notice my feelings for the SNP and what has happened to Scottish politics. As I wrote here:

My disdain for the SNP is clear: I find its use of populist nationalist rhetoric (‘Scotland’s voice’, ‘standing up for Scotland’, ‘the Scottish lion’) to frame the important divide as ‘Scotland/England’ rather than class and economic power to be hugely damaging and not a little embarrassing. I find its eagerness to turn everything into a matter of grievance against Scotland, while dismissing criticisms as ‘talking down Scotland’ to be tragic. Yet even I remain shocked at just how mendacious the party continues to be in its ditching of ‘progressive’ policies (council tax reform, higher rate of tax) while pointing the finger at ‘unionists’ with flat-out lies which rely on people taking its word and not doing any fact-checking.

Yesterday Nicola Sturgeon encouraged supporters to tweet why they were supporting the SNP using the hashtag #SNPBecause. The tag was a fascinating glimpse into the ‘twilight world of unreality‘ which is both fed by, and feeds, nationalism. There were many references to the meaningless stance of ‘standing up/speaking for Scotland’. There were many of the now-typical assertions that independence would make things better, just because. There was the now-standard accrediting of everything and anything viewed as ‘progressive’ to the SNP (including quite explicitly non-SNP achievements like free bus travel for the elderly and/or disabled, abolishing tuition fees or free personal and nursing care). Perhaps most dishearteningly, there was the pathologised hatred of Labour (the ‘Red Tories’) and ‘unionists’ which has become commonplace since September 2014.

The SNP’s record in government has been poor to say the least. It has cut relative spending on health and education in Scotland, with achievements against key NHS targets such as A&E or cancer waiting times worsening and both literacy and numeracy levels declining. Its fixation on ‘free education’ (as issue of ‘Scottish/English distinction’ above all else) masks the fact that poor students in Scotland are less likely to go to university than in any of the other countries of the UK, that “in Scotland, the arrangements for student funding are unique in the UK in assuming the highest levels of student debt amongst the poorest students” or that Further Education in Scotland has been cut. Those ‘free’ tuition fees have been paid for by cutting support for the poorest students and cutting funding for colleges. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation noted that under the evil Red Tory/Lib Dem coalition, Scotland had some of the lowest levels of poverty in the UK, a trend which levelled off in 2007:

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The centralisation of policing and of local government have been plagued with problems and belie the SNP’s claims to favour ’empowering’ people. The party has similarly pursued centralisation in higher/further education, health and even the arts.

Recent events, meanwhile, have exposed the lie behind SNP rhetoric that oil was a ‘bonus’ for the Scottish economy. Its decline and Scotland’s higher public spending (than rUK) has led to Scotland’s financial situation worsening.Such is the SNP’s mendacity regarding this that they actually trumpet the fiscal framework agreement as them defeating the dastardly Tories (it features prominently in the SNP manifesto) when the First Minister actually acknowledged that Scotland’s demographics meant that more financial responsibility would lead to far more financial risk (compared to the current set-up and to rUK). Yet rather than acknowledge that Scotland has higher public spending, a bigger deficit and benefits disproportionately from Barnett, the SNP prefers to push the politics of grievance and point the finger at dastardly Westminster.

It is because of this latter point that the SNP’s record will make little difference to its support today. As this article puts it:

The SNP enjoys strong support in large part because identity politics have become the defining currency of discourse in Scotland. The governing party has eclipsed the once mighty Scottish Labour movement, stealing many of its left-leaning policies while also rejecting Labour’s commitment to unionism.

The constitution has become the defining issue in Scottish politics and support for the SNP (and for independence) has become synonymous with both a love for ‘Scotland’ as an abstract concept and for ‘progressiveness’. Yet the latter is so taken as a given that SNP supporters don’t actually expect anything to be done to pursue social justice now, telling themselves it may interfere with the independent valhalla which lies just over the hill. The SNP aren’t going to deliver social justice by freezing income tax, tinkering with council tax and cutting air passenger duty yet the furious response which greets even pro-independence critics of the party is instructive as to what’s really important here: the identity, not the doing.

Of course, many of those who have decided independence is the path to social justice furiously deny being nationalist any sense. They furiously deny this while engaging in rhetoric which portrays ‘unionists’, ‘Tories’ and ‘Red Tories’ as bodies foreign to Scotland. I had noticed this long ago in pieces by ‘socialists’ like Alan Bissett, which led to this exchange on Twitter this week:

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This is rhetoric which is frequently deployed by the SNP and will be recognised, I would bet, by most Scots who criticise the party and independence. Yet it’s dismissed by a ‘socialist’ as ‘inelegant phrasing’. It is this mindset which leads to an inability to see the nationalism which is integral to the SNP’s appeal. “STRONGER FOR SCOTLAND. Standing up for Scotland is what we do’. This dreck leads the SNP manifesto. It devotes pages to documenting the SNP battle with ‘Tories’ and ‘UK parties’ while its intro begins “All of us who live here in Scotland love our country.” The message is barely even implicit: the SNP love Scotland. The UK parties do not. Leaving aside the issue that whether or not someone ‘loves’ the idea of their country should be a total irrelevance, it’s actually pretty insidious. It’s this underlying narrative which has led both RISE and the Scottish Greens to mute their criticism of the Scottish government, hoping to ride the coattails of nationalism to a list vote.

This year’s Scottish Labour manifesto, on the other hand, takes giant steps away from Jim Murphy’s ‘ultra-nationalist’ horrors of last year to commendably focus on social justice. Its intro begins, “We want to create a Scotland where it is a young person’s potential, ambition and work rate that determine how far they get on in life – not where they were born.” The only references to ‘standing up’ for anything are with regards to women’s equality and against “hate crime and exploitation”. This is a manifesto which recognise that people do not have common interests because they share the same country. It is because of this that the policies it contains are manifestly to the left of the SNP, notably including the 50p tax rate on the wealthiest which the SNP have now ditched and proposing higher taxes to pay for some of Scotland’s higher public spending.

Yet Scottish Labour are battling to avoid coming third, due to the nationalist pathologising of the party. This is nothing to do with an interest in a ‘fairer’ society and everything to do with a facile imagined identity.

We see, then, that nationalism and attempts to divide are at work in various ways on this election day. I support Jeremy Corbyn because I believe he offers something more; something better. He is not appealing to our basest instincts nor is he telling us that we are exceptional because of where we live. The Labour election poster unveiled last week explicitly acknowledges the divisions within society in a way which saw some attack it as ‘class war’:

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They are right. There is a class war and currently the wealthiest are winning, with the support of the Tories and the SNP. In word and deed Labour recognise that the interests of a single parent living in social housing are not the same as those of a millionaire landlord, even if they only live one mile apart. It’s no secret that the Labour machine remains against Corbyn and that the Labour right is constantly seeking to undermine him. These forces are eagerly hoping that Labour does badly today, in the naive hope that losses will enable them to reclaim the party and reinstate their ‘it’s not racist to be worried about immigration’ dreck. Corbyn is something different. He deserves the support of anyone who believes in socialism. That is why I voted Labour today and why I hope anyone who professes to care about social justice will reject the Tories and the SNP.